Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review of Highland Holiday

Published in 1942, Highland Holiday is the third and final novel of the Caroline and Sara series. It kicks off with the girls’ mothers going to visit them at the prize giving at their school. Sara’s mother breaks the news to the girls that they will not be going to Skye for the summer but will be returning to another old haunt of theirs instead: the isle of Arran, just off the Ayrshire coast. Unlike their other holidays, where the girls were accompanied only by Caroline’s sister Vanessa and her husband John, this time the whole extended family will be there, including Sara’s rascally little twin brothers, Rufus and Robin. And there will be another visitor from Sara’s side of the family: Jane, the daughter of her Uncle Thomas, a scientist who has returned to Scotland from Vienna. Sara and Caroline are delighted that they do not have to live in the big house the family has rented, having been given their independence by being allowed to occupy a small cottage on the same property (although they don’t enjoy this independence so much when it means having to cook their own meals).
Arriving on Arran, Sara takes an immediate dislike to Jane and feels that she is encroaching on her relationship with Caroline. At first unaware of this, Jane attempts to be friendly, but ends up overhearing Sara saying some nasty things about her. The result is that Jane begins to torment her cousin. Joining forces with Robin and Rufus, she gets to know all of Sara’s foibles and phobias, such as fear of mice, and makes Sara’s life a misery. Caroline, in the meantime, tries to keep up a good relationship with both. Instead of photography, which was her hobby in the previous stories, Sara has now taken to writing a novel, with the characters being loosely based on her companions on Arran. Jane uses Sara’s weak points and lack of confidence to make contradictory suggestions about the book, plunging the budding authoress into further depths of misery.
One familiar Jane Shaw element that is missing from this story is the lost treasure. In this story there is no cache of diamonds or forgotten masterpiece, but there are many other threads to fill the pages. The girls are cajoled into putting on a play at the local village festival and Sara takes on the task of writing it. This leads to a delightfully humorous scene in which Jane, the producer, almost tears her hair out in an attempt to get rehearsals started, only to be put off by one distraction after another. Uncle Thomas, a scientist who is working on a cure for the common cold, is baffled to discover that someone has broken into his laboratory and stolen his notes and his prototype formula. After he tells them that the serum actually induces a cold before it cures it, Sara gets it into her head that the Countess of Monmore, who was sneezing at the play, is the thief, and there is a hilarious chapter dedicated to pursuing the countess, who turns out to be allergic to hydrangeas. There is also a dramatic episode. Sara, having been forced to accept the hitherto unthinkable notion that Jane doesn’t like her, decides to try and be her friend. A suspicious Jane gives her a cool reception. But one day, while out swimming in the sea, they are almost attacked by a shark. Scrambling for safety on a rock, Jane slips and bumps her head. Sara then saves her life and helps her home. Jane is grateful and the feud is laid to rest.
Now only the missing formula remains. Caroline works out how the thief manages to remain in hiding and they set a trap for him. One typical Jane Shaw moment that is definitely not missing from this story is the mind-boggling conclusion. The thief turns out to be a German spy who believes that rather than working on a cure for the common cold, Uncle Thomas is actually working on a “deadly silent explosive”! The idea that such secret work could be conducted out in the open in an unguarded cottage requires a considerable stretch of the imagination. But there we have it… The book ends with a touching scene in which Sara offers to dedicate her book to Jane and Caroline (the dedication being the only words that she has actually got down on paper!). Jane gracefully accepts.
Highland Holiday is more in the vein of Breton Holiday than of Bernese Holiday. It has many descriptive scenes of Arran and the surrounding area and there are many meals and lazy afternoons in the sun. The girls are blessed with an unusually long hot summer, quite unlike the Scottish standard. It is a good, solid story, yet it was never reissued as an Adventure, as the others were. In Susan and Friends, when discussing Highland Holiday, Rosemary Auchmuty claims that
“Highland Holiday never enjoyed the success of its predecessors. I can only assume it was not reprinted in such quantities because it features a German spy for a villain. This dates it as a wartime novel (which, of course, it was) and had it reappeared alongside Breton Holiday and Bernese Holiday, it would have caused them to appear dated too.”
She then goes on to say:
“I don’t think that Highland Holiday is as good a book as the other two because I find the characters overdrawn and some of the humour, too.”
So we have two possible reasons why it was never reissued. I have to disagree with the first one. The German spy only makes his appearance in the final pages of the book. Throughout the entire story there had been almost no mention of the war and it does not impinge on the plot at all. The spy could easily have been recast as someone from a rival pharmaceutical company or a jealous doctor wishing to steal the formula for his own dastardly purposes. That leaves us with the other possibility: that the book simply wasn’t considered good enough to reissue. There seems to be considerable support for this point of view. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has read the book has claimed not to like it very much. But once again my opinion differs. I wouldn’t say the characters are overdrawn, apart from Sara (in Chapter 9 there are four pages of her rambling train of thought). However, I would say that if there is a fault in the book it is that part of the plot is overdrawn. I felt the story began to drag during Jane’s persecution of Sara. Making her think that there were mice in her room and shattering her confidence in her abilities as a writer was enough, but the torture went on to the point of bringing in witches and ghosts, and at that point the plot began to lose its way for a while. One aspect that would seem dated today is the red herring, the Indian wandering salesman. When she answers the door when he calls, Sara is surprised by a “black face”, although in the next line he is described as a “poor little Indian” who was “only coffee coloured, and not even black coffee”. There is some suspicion of him as he is seen wandering around on the night that the formula is stolen and a local woman voices her distaste of a “black man on the island”. However, her husband criticizes this point of view and the couple take the salesman into their home until he is cured of the cold he caught when he fell into the burn. Once again, these passages could easily have been rewritten.

I would give Highland Holiday 7 out of 10. Despite its occasional long-windedness, it is a solid tale and a fitting farewell to Jane Shaw's earliest heroines (although they would reappear briefly in the short story Sara's Adventure in 1953). It was also nice to get a closer look at characters that had only appeared or been referred to briefly in the previous stories, such as the twins and the girls' parents. The island of Arran is a perfect setting and is well depicted by the skilful pen of Jane Shaw. I'm glad I added this book to my collection.